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Challenges Stacked For Obama's Second Term

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. A newly re-elected President Barack Obama won't officially begin his second term until he is sworn in again on January 20th. But some of the priorities of his next four years in office are already taking shape, and the challenges are becoming more apparent. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now to talk more about all this. Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So, right out of the gate, the first thing the president has to deal with is coming up with a deficit reduction deal with Republicans before this big combination of tax increases and spending cuts takes effect January 1st. Mara, are President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner any better positioned now to reach a deal than they were last year?

LIASSON: I think they are. The president certainly is. He feels his hand has been strengthened. He just won a pretty definitive victory. He didn't just squeak through. He got more Democrats elected to the House. He also ran on his bottom line. He said he wants the rich to pay more and he wants a balanced deficit reduction deal, meaning spending cuts but also revenue increases. House Speaker John Boehner is sounding conciliatory. He says he doesn't want income tax rate hikes for anyone, especially the upper-income people, but he's willing to get the revenues that the president wants. So, they've already kind of described a certain overlapping set of interests where they could be a compromise if they're creative enough and if they can get their troops to follow them.

MARTIN: And how do you think these negotiations could affect how the White House and congressional Republicans deal with each other moving forward? I mean, I imagine this could be an important test for that relationship.

LIASSON: Well, I think it's a huge test for the functioning of the government. Don't forget, we've been in gridlock for a very long time. This was the least productive Congress - the one that is just ending - ever. And I think if the president and the speaker, who are both thinking about their legacies now - the president is not going to run for re-election again. If they can get a deal that would avert the economic damage of the fiscal cliff while laying the groundwork for a bigger deal - tax reform, entitlement reform, something that would take probably a year to work out - but if they can lay down the groundwork for that at the same time they're averting the fiscal cliff, I think the financial markets would be thrilled and I think the image of Congress, which is really in the tank, and the White House would go way up. So, it's in both of their interests to do it.

MARTIN: Health care reform was the president's top legislative priority in his first term. After this election, there has been a whole lot of talk about immigration reform. Do you think that's shaping up to be the big legislative ticket item for Mr. Obama coming up?

LIASSON: I do. I think that immigration reform was the one issue on which the election had the biggest impact. You hear conservative Republicans already suing for peace on this. Conservative commentators, like Hannity and Charles Krauthammer are saying, OK, let's have a path to citizenship, let's have amnesty. This has always been the big sticking point for Republicans. But they now see how poorly they did with the Latino vote in the elections. They won right around a quarter. And they need to do better with Latino voters and they are going to have to come to a compromise on this issue. I think that immigration reform now has a much better chance of passing, whether it'll be a path to legalization or full-fledged citizenship remains to be seen. But I think we're going to get more than just the DREAM Act and H1B1 visas this year.

MARTIN: And very quickly, Mara, any political lessons from the president's first term that might apply to the second?

LIASSON: I think the president learned a lot of lessons. I think he learned how to negotiate. I think he learned how to take his case to the public and develop support - not just kind of try to cook something up in a backroom and then spring it on the Congress. I think he did learn some important lessons, and I think he also learned he has a little more clout now.

MARTIN: Mara Liasson is NPR's national political correspondent. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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